San Juan Islands

San Juan view across Hotel de Haro gardens

By Amanda Spottiswoode

Just across the border from Canada’s Gulf Islands – and there’s a story behind that – San Juan is an engaging destination rich in history, culture and opportunities to explore shoreside.

Our first cruise to the San Juan Islands was in 2005, our seventh year of cruising on our wooden sailboat, South Islander. We had heard about how lovely the San Juans were, and even though we have many beautiful anchorages in Canada, we felt it was time to do some exploring south of the border. After all, the San Juans are really just an extension of our own southern Gulf Islands; it’s the international boundary that runs right smack through the middle that makes the San Juans a separate destination.

However, it’s that boundary that caused us to hesitate for so many years. Having crossed through mainland borders and been subjected to much scrutiny, we were reluctant to try crossing with our boat, which has a slightly “hippy” look to it and no doubt ranks lower in terms of respect than the gleaming mega-yachts that can be seen plying the local waters during the busy summer boating season.

San Juan English Camp parkHowever, we decided to give it a go and embarked on our long-awaited San Juan Islands cruise. After a short crossing from Sidney and with some trepidation, we landed in Roche. The customs officer couldn’t have been nicer and greeted us with a potted history of why the San Juan Islands were American, not British. When he noticed my English accent, he even apologized for taking the islands away from us! 

Roche Harbor is a very quaint village with many historic buildings. The remains of the old limekilns, which are the reason the settlement was established back in the 19th century, can be seen on the road at the top of the dock where a spectacular old hotel, the Hotel de Haro, sits. The informational signs dotted around the harbour give visitors detailed historical facts. The marina facilities are excellent with a good general store and various eateries. It has a very pleasant resort feel to it and makes an excellent entry point into the US, less busy than the main custom’s office at Friday Harbor.

Once your boat is secured and your canine companions have decided it’s their turn to be entertained and walked, follow the path to what is a strange mausoleum in the woods. On the way, you pass a sculpture park and the airfield (very interesting to my husband who is currently building an airplane in our garage); once you’ve found the trail, you’ll reach the monument where John S. McMillin, who founded the Roche Harbor Lime and Cement Company, is buried along with his family. Its very peculiar structure – apparently based on the Masonic principles – looks like some odd Greek temple dropped incongruously onto a Pacific Northwest island.

San Juan Roche Harbour ResortAt the suggestion of our friendly customs officer, we headed over to the English Camp at Garrison Bay to anchor for the night. English Camp was established in 1859 when the so-called Pig War erupted. The Americans and the British (in the guise of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which represented Britain’s interests at the time) had both claimed the San Juans as part of their territory, but an uneasy peace prevailed until an American settler killed a pig belonging to a Hudson’s Bay settler. Then, to coin a phrase, all hell broke loose and the ensuing dispute lasted 12 years. 

During that time, 461 Americans, hugely outnumbered by 2,140 British and five British warships, were stationed on the island. Each side established a camp, but the English side located their camp in a delightful spot on Garrison Bay whereas the American Camp was supposedly built in a bug-infested swamp. However, the Americans had the last laugh: Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was appointed to settle the dispute and he gave the islands to the Americans.

San Juan Island mapAfter a night spent in the excellent anchorage of Garrison Bay, we cruised over to Friday Harbor, the mecca of the San Juan Islands. Friday Harbor is actually a small town, with historic buildings lining the streets, a vibrant waterfront with green space, art galleries, bookstores, cafes and a well-run municipal marina. Even if you usually choose to visit remote and secluded anchorages, it would be hard not to enjoy Friday Harbor’s amenities, along with a chance to fuel up and provision. We explored the town, shopped at the well-stocked grocery store, rented a video and spent the evening snugged up to the dock with a good bottle of wine.

We ended our first San Juan cruise by crossing back into Canada and checking in at Bedwell Harbour on Pender Island. No one at Canada Customs seemed much interested in our arrival; it was all done quickly over the phone. Our trepidation at the prospect of crossing into and back from the US was unfounded, and the whole process was easy and hassle-free.

In 2009, we again bearded the lion in his den, as in the customs officer at the dock, and again were greeted courteously. We spent a couple of hours in Roche Harbor sweltering under a brilliant blue sky (with the temperature hovering in the 30s) before pushing off and heading for a close-by anchorage at Turn Island State Park. If you’ve had enough of those lovely pubs and quaint cafes, it offers a quieter spot to spend the night, and a good place to give the dogs some shore leave. Watch out, however, for the currents that swirl through the channel that separates Turn Island from San Juan Island.

San Juan John McMillin's MausoleumThe weather on that cruise was blisteringly hot and one of the ways we beat the heat was to anchor in some pleasant nook and take the dinghy to shore to explore. Travelling at 15 knots gave us a chance to cool off. The dogs would perch on the bow, ears flying in the wind. The dinghy was “their” boat and it was a great relief after sweltering on the hot teak deck of South Islander. 

When we revisited San Juan Island in 2011, we were able to explore the American Camp. It was a little tricky finding the right access from shore, but we finally found temporary anchorage in Griffin Bay, paddled ashore and found an excellent walk around a lagoon and up a gravel road to the historic site. When we had visited the English Camp a few years earlier, we had been told that the English had established a far superior camp to the Americans. Granted, the location is not as pretty as the English Camp, but we could find no evidence of that “bug-infested swamp”. The site is on the top of a hill with stunning views; I imagine it was pretty bleak in winter. 

San Juan South Islander at anchorToday, it is another very well kept park, with many of the original buildings still in place along with an excellent visitor centre. The displays cover local flora and fauna, the history of the island before the arrival of white settlers, and lots about the Pig War. 

San Juan Island is an excellent place to start a cruise around the San Juans. Even if you don’t make it to any other island, Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor have enough to entertain you for several days. Culture, great food and wine, history, good dog walks and friendly people make this a wonderful cruising destination.


The author was taught to sail by the Royal Navy on the River Thames and has been a keen sailor ever since. She is co-owner of South Islander, a 34’ wooden sloop, and has cruised the BC coast with her husband and dogs since 1998. In 2013 she published South Islander – Memoirs of a Cruising Dog, an illustrated book about their adventures. Visit southislander.ca to purchase a copy of the book.



San Juan South Islander - Memoirs of a Cruising DogPhoto 1 – The view across the gardens of the Hotel de Haro takes in the pier and boardwalk where there are cafes, stores and other amenities.

Photo 2 – English Camp is a lovely park that dates from the famous San Juan Island “Pig War.” The park and blockhouse are located on Garrison Bay.

Photo 3 – Roche Harbor Resort is a favourite destination for visitors to San Juan Island. Its restaurant is a pleasant spot to pass a summer evening, watching the activity in the harbour while enjoying a delicious meal.

Photo 4 – Map of the area during the Pig War – 1859 – 1871

Photo 5 – John McMillin’s Mausoleum is a surprising and peaceful feature that can be reached by a pretty trail from Roche Harbor.

Photo 6 – South Islander at anchor

Photo 7 – From our perch at the end of the dock at the Port of Friday Harbor it’s quite a hike to the top of the ramp. This is a huge marina!

Photo 8 – South Islander – Memoirs of a Cruising Dog

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